Discovering Patterns in Mathematics and Poetry Invites Readers to Make Surprising Connections
(Calculus not required)
April 24, 2008
by Susan Gawlowicz
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“Why bring together two fields that seem to many people so very disparate? What could mathematics and poetry share, except that the mention of either one is sometimes enough to bring an uneasy chill into a conversation?”—from Discovering Patterns in Mathematics and Poetry by Marcia Birken and Anne C. Coon
What do Fibonacci Numbers, the Golden Ratio and poetry have in common?
Their patterns and the analogies they inspire help us to express fundamental concepts, make new discoveries and comprehend the mysterious, say Marcia Birken and Anne C. Coon.
The mathematician and the poet have been on a treasure hunt of sorts, searching mathematics and poetry for points of similarity and areas of overlap for more than 25 years. Along the way, they found significant connections in their respective fields through analogies and patterns, and gained a mutual appreciation for each other’s discipline.
Written for a general audience, Patterns in Mathematics and Poetry (Editions Rodopi, Amsterdam) is the result of their unlikely partnership and lengthy collaboration. The book grew from the course “Analogy, Mathematics and Poetry” (later “Patterns in Mathematics and Poetry”) that Birken and Coon developed and taught at Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as from their countless papers, conferences and workshops on related topics.
Patterns in Mathematics and Poetry is intended for readers who may never have taken Calculus or do not have all 101 Great American Poems committed to memory. What they must have is an interest in making connections across disciplines and a thirst for intellectual adventure.
“The book is meant for scientists who love poetry and poets who love science and math,” says Coon, senior associate dean and professor of English in RIT’s College of Liberal Arts and the author of several books of poetry published by FootHills Publishing and The Old School Press.
“People who seek patterns are always looking for new ones,” adds Birken, professor emeritus in RIT’s School of Mathematical Sciences and an award-winning nature photographer. “They want to understand the world through increasingly complex configurations.”
Birken and Coon show their readers how to cast an interdisciplinary eye toward examining patterns of counting, form and fractals, as well as patterns for the mind—proof, paradox and infinity. Chapters of the book can be read in any order, but begin with things that are simple and countable and become more abstract. To avoid intimidating readers, the authors corralled more complex mathematical explanations within inset boxes that are left up to the reader’s prerogative and readiness for challenge.
A separate chapter is dedicated specifically to fractals—things that repeat exactly or approximately on a variety of scales. “A single frond of a fern is a miniature version of the entire plant, much as like a single floret of broccoli resembles the entire head,” Birken explains.
Coon adds: “We wanted to include a section on fractals because the science is interesting to people, the mathematics can be presented visually, and the images are fascinating and beautiful, but there is now a lot of interest poetically in what fractals are. There is even an evolving body of writing and literary criticism that is defining and examining ‘fractal poetry.’”
The book is illustrated with mathematical images and Birken’s photographs to help explain math to non-experts. Poets whose work is featured in the book include e.e. cummings, Mary Oliver, Harvard mathematician Barry Mazur and RIT graduate Chris Wiltz.
“There are important differences between poetry and mathematics, and we don’t want to blur or minimize those,” Coon cautions. “There are also many ways in which the study of one, or the appreciation of one, can help inform your appreciation of the other. We especially like the way Ingrid Daubechies (the Princeton mathematician who popularized wavelet analysis) brings the two together, saying mathematics is “akin to poetry: a way of taking the big idea and condensing and honing it until it communicates exactly the right information.”
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